Monday, 20 December 2010

A Tongue All His Own

Brian Walker gives an interesting mention to John Laird's new autobiography over at Slugger O'Toole.

While conceding that Laird is "beyond caricature to some" (the comments following his post contain the obligatory "buffoon"), Walker believes that he "captures the essence of a neglected cause".

There is the odd liberal barb to his equanimity, however, as when he reports Laird's belief that the Ulster Scots are "still quite distinct from the Irish after 400 years". A further, perhaps more pertinent question might be whether that people, who once existed, could have remained separate from their fellow Protestants among the Ulster English for such a time. If not, then current attempts to rediscover Ulster-Scots identity begin to look more like an elective interest on the part of a Unionist fringe, with the only common denominators not blood or ethnic tradition but not-an-inch politics and loopy evangelicalism (Laird self-identifies with neither). Perhaps it is partly for this reason that "in the wider unionist community the claims of the Scottish tradition have limited appeal".

The peer caused a good deal of controversy during his convenership (to use a suitable Scots word) of the Ulster-Scots Agency, a time when taxpayers North and South were expected to pick up the tab for long-distance taxi fares, including one from Belfast to Dublin. His later resignation came when he put his own money into a musical also in receipt of a grant from the agency, apparently not as an investment but in a well-intentioned attempt to ensure that it went ahead. Both these episodes show that Laird, who had enjoyed a successful career with his eponymous PR firm, struggled to adapt to the necessity of keeping public and private separate. At times his silly-season pronouncements on Northern Ireland language politics seemed like examples of the philosophy that "all publicity is good publicity"; his expenses claims evoked the suspicion that Ulster Scots was merely "our own gibberish", a flag of convenience, a confessional cash cow. At the time, one friend of the Blether Region working to promote Irish even theorised that, while a conventional minority-languages development curve might lead from activism through diplomacy to career, Ulster Scots had cut out the middle part.

Laird also used his bad-good publicity to attack Irish, which sowed more doubts. At huge cost to the taxpayer, he asked "hundreds of trivial parliamentary questions". Ten years ago, some people thought that he was doing it in order to effect a change of personnel (and consequently religion) among the senior civil servants at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure with whom the agency had to work.

The philosophical renewal implicit in Laird's journey from taxi passenger to musical impresario, high-class sponger to social entrepreneur, shows that, by the end of his tenure at the Ulster-Scots Agency, he had internalised his own Ulster-Scots PR. But it came late in the day.

Only time will tell for what he will be remembered.

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